AirAsia launches a $60M fund to help startups get into Southeast Asia

Budget airline AirAsia is getting into the VC game after it unveiled a venture capital fund that aims to invest in startups across the world.

The airline today announced Redbeat Capital, a $60 million fund that it says will operate independently and seek deals with startups worldwide in areas such as travel, lifestyle, fintech and logistics. The big selling point to prospective companies is the opportunity to tap into AirAsia’s business in Southeast Asia, which claims to cater to 90 million flyers each year.

The fund is targeting a $60 million close, although AirAsia didn’t reveal how much it has secured so far. It will be run out of San Francisco and Southeast Asia, and is working with 500 Startups to source deal flow and exchange ideas.

AirAsia has suffered a stock tumble on financial concerns, but is still valued at more than $2 billion. Redbeat Capital is part of an ambitious strategy to widen AirAsia’s focus and take it beyond simply being an airline, according to group CEO Tony Fernandes.

“I’m determined to change AirAsia from just moving people into something different in five years time. This is a serious step in the whole transformation piece [that’s] no different to when I set up the airline,” Fernandes told TechCrunch in an interview.

“Our first transformation was being a low-cost carrier that uses the web, so our culture has always been in tech,” he added.” We’re now going for our second stage with our platforms,” — those include its BigPay payment service, BigLife app and logistics business.

But a corporate fund this isn’t, at least according to Fernandes.

Redbeat Capital has raised its money from LPs — though it declined to provide details on them — and Fernandes said it will balance both making investments for financial return and boosting AirAsia, too. The company already has a corporate vehicle — Redbeat Ventures — but that will switch to being an incubator and company-aligned investment vehicle, while its portfolio will transition to Redbeat Capital, Fernandes said.

“We wanted to give it a bit more independence, as opposed to just being an arm of AirAsia… it’s to be seen whether we can execute,” he added.

In terms of deals, Fernandes was fairly coy about precise details other than that it is “post-seed.” He said the fund could write checks as high as $5 million or around $1 million, as needed.

Tony Fernandes has set a goal of five years for broadening AirAsia’s business beyond air travel (Photo: Paul Miller/Bloomberg)

Silicon Valley is a tough market to break into for any first-time investor, and AirAsia doesn’t operate in the U.S. and is relatively unknown in California. But the AirAsia chief believes Redbeat Capital can offer a unique gateway into Southeast Asia, which he believes is frequently overlooked in favor of India or China.

“Competing in India and China is expensive but Southeast Asia is just starting,” he said. “We are looking for companies that want to be strategic with us and use our database and platforms for mutual benefit.”

By that, he explained that AirAsia can use its platform and customer base to help companies acquire users and do marketing, typically two of the largest expenses, in the region.

There’s plenty of optimism around Southeast Asia — a recent report co-authored by Google forecast that the region’s digital economy will triple to reach $240 billion by 2025.

That’s echoed by 500 Startups, which operates funds in Southeast Asia and is currently raising a new global fund.

“[Southeast Asia] has more internet users than the U.S., which presents a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs. To have an industry titan like AirAsia building a bridge with Silicon Valley through its partnership with 500 is exciting for our startups, many of which have ambitions for global scale,” added Christine Tsai, CEO of 500 Startups, in a statement.

Still, it remains to be seen if Redbeat Capital can balance the very different demands of corporate investing with financial-driven deals. Large company funds tend to have less focus on financial, with ROI typically focused on encouraging “innovation” within the parent company or enabling deals to help the bottom line. Profession funds, of course, exist to return the fund and more to their LPs.

Still, Fernandes — whose diverse business interests have included music, British soccer and Formula One racing — is characteristically up for the challenge. He won’t directly be involved, though. The venture will be led by Aireen Omar — deputy group CEO who leads AirAsia’s digital strategy — but her boss is looking on eagerly.

“This is unconventional but the early fruits are encouraging,” Fernandes said.